The Illumination of Ursula Flight…
About the Book:
A charming, whip-smart and funny tale, full of heart and spirit, of one young woman’s coming of age both on and off the stage in seventeenth-century England.
On the 15th day of December in the year of our Lord 1664, a great light bloomed in the dark sky and crept slowly and silently across the blackness: a comet. Every evening afterwards, though snow lay on the ground and the air bit with frost, men across the land threw open their windows and went out of their doors in cloaks and mufflers to gaze at the heavens, necks stretched up, hands shielding eyes, crooking long fingers to trace the burning thing that flamed across the night, while dogs moaned in their kennels and wise women chanted incantations against bright malignant spirits.
Born on the night of an ill-auguring comet just before Charles II’s Restoration, Ursula Flight has a difficult future written in the stars.
Against the custom of the age she begins an education with her father, who fosters in her a love of reading, writing and astrology.
Following a surprising meeting with an actress, Ursula’s dreams turn to the theatre and thus begins her quest to become a playwright despite scoundrels, bounders, bad luck and heartbreak.
A vivid, passionate and gutsy tale of a most unusual girl in a world far away. The Illumination of Ursula Flight is a love letter to the theatre and a salute to the inspirational women who, despite the odds being stacked against them, attempted a creative life in Restoration England.
Born under a comet and named by her father for the Great Bear constellation, Ursula is a woman born centuries too soon. The first child of the family to have survived after multiple stillbirths, her father treasures Ursula’s keen mind, providing her with an education that would rival many men within her class. Coupled with her natural creativity, Ursula grows into a highly intelligent young woman, which of course, is completely at odds with the life she is destined for: marriage to a rich older man as a means of securing the funds to ensure the ongoing maintenance of her family’s estate. Such is the lot of women in the 17th century, born to be meek, obedient and godly…
That was never going to work out for Ursula.
This delightful novel is filled to the brim with cheek and sass, quite a bit of heartache, plenty of points to shudder at and moan over but above all, joy and hope, all played out against a very 17th century English background. In many ways, The Illumination of Ursula Flight is reminiscent of Jane Austen, with her witty banter and the depiction of characters with all of their ridiculous antics and insufferable assumptions about the intelligence, or lack thereof, of women.
“’tis well known that book-learning can bring on the ague. Why, I heard of one poor learned lady who lived at Oxford who was in the habit of attending lectures (not, I hasten to add, with the sanction of the college for they would not have allowed it if they’d known. She got in with the help of her brother, who must regret his actions to this day—foolish man!). This lady was prone to fainting fits—the great strain, I believe, of study was too much for her female mind. After a full day of reading some very large tomes, she went into a stupor and died in the very library where she had got the books. They opened up her body after she was dead and were amazed to discover that her very brain was shrivelled and wrinkled as a walnut—for it had soured in her head from too much reading and that was the thing that carried her off.”
I laughed my way through The Illumination of Ursula Flight, but there were plenty of tender moments as well which brought a lump to my throat. Ursula’s path is definitely not an easy one and at times you think there is no possible way for her to be happy, but her resourcefulness and self-integrity hold fast, and I loved the way she was unwilling to just accept her lot in life. She hits some very low points indeed, including almost starving to death, but she doesn’t let this put her off from her ultimate goal: to be an independent woman with a creative career, something almost impossible to achieve in 17th century England.
What elevates The Illumination of Ursula Flight to such a spectacular level is it’s structure. It’s a story of creativity told in the most creative of ways. Entirely from Ursula’s perspective, the narrative is interspersed with other forms: letters, lists, diary entries, plans, survival tips, editing notes, reiterations of conversations laid out as a script, and the crowning jewels of this novel: the plays. Many important situations and events are presented as plays, continually taking the reader back to the heart of Ursula’s creativity. It’s such a unique novel and so incredibly enjoyable. There are also lovely illustrations throughout and extensive use of different fonts. Even the chapter’s are named in an entertaining manner:
Adaptation…in which I become accustomed to fashionable life
Domesticity…in which I spend a quiet afternoon with my husband
Observations on a mother-in-law being a book of directions on living with this deadly ague
This novel really is an experience, such a delightful read. I like nothing more than a novel that’s quirky and unique, especially if it’s filled with intelligence, wit and a wealth of history. By far my favourite novel so far this year, it’s one I will be recommending again and again. I’d like to finish up with this note from the author on the inspiration that led to her creation of The Illumination of Ursula Flight. As well as providing historical context, it highlights the empowering aspect of this novel.
“The inspiration for Ursula was Aphra Behn—one of the first female playrights and a trailblazer for women writers the world over. What if there were other women like Aphra that we’ve never heard about, whose plays and stories have been lost to us? If she existed, why not others? I discovered that the Restoration era was in fact an amazing time for creativity and for women in general. In 1660 the newly restored King Charles II re-opened the theatres and pronounced that women would be allowed to act on the English stage for the very first time. This heralded a new age for women in the theatre. There were actresses, yes, but also writers, telling women’s stories. This brief pocket of freedom and creativity for women in a very restrictive time was very fascinating to me.”
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Illumination of Ursula Flight for review.
About the Author:
Anna-Marie Crowhurst read English at King’s College London and has worked as a freelance fashion and culture journalist for more than 15 years, contributing to publications including The Times, The Guardian, Time Out, Stylist and Emerald Street. Her debut novel The Illumination of Ursula Flight was written during her recent MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and was supervised by the award-winning novelist Tessa Hadley. Anna-Marie graduated with distinction in 2017. She lives in London.